An MBA isn’t the right move for everyone who wants to study business online.
For James Spinelli, vice president at the financial services firm Great Valley Advisor Group, a master’s degree in finance made sense because that’s mainly what he focuses on at his job. To compare, an MBA generally explores business on a broader scale.
“I’m not using this to try to shift out of what I’m doing into a new space,” says the 31-year-old Pennsylvania resident. “It’s more along the lines of trying to master or fine tune the skills that I already have.”
Raising two young children on top of his career, Spinelli also needed a flexible program. He is currently pursuing the online finance M.S. from the Indiana University—Bloomington Kelley School of Business.
An MBA may be a fit for those aiming to switch fields or move into managerial positions. But there are other online learning options for those who want basic business knowledge or concrete skills.
Here are five types of online business courses and programs beyond an MBA.
1. Free online training: Across the internet, there are many free recorded lectures by university professors, companies and business leaders on various topics. Course lengths vary.
Websites such as Coursera, FutureLearn and Alison allow users to sample classes – including in business – at no charge. Another option is the U.S. Small Business Administration, which offers free online classes in finance, management, marketing and other topics.
These self-paced online courses, experts say, are a good option for those who want to develop basic insight into certain subjects or gauge their interest in business before getting an MBA. But don’t expect much – if any – interaction with faculty and classmates.
2. Massive open online course, or MOOC, certificate programs: Companies such as edX and Coursera, among others, typically create online classes in collaboration with well-known universities. Generally, MOOCs are available for free, but paying allows students to receive certificates of completion, either for individual or series of courses. Paying may also provide extra features such as additional course materials and feedback from instructors.
EdX, for instance, has a professional certificate program in digital marketing with the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Students complete four five- to six-week self-paced courses for $585 each.
A MOOC certificate enables students to update skills while also receiving a credential for their resume – all with less of a time and financial commitment than an MBA, says Masha Tarasyuk, who leads content strategy for business courses at Coursera.
At the same time, “A MOOC is still by nature an individual experience and light on actual networking,” Gilles Daquin, a data analyst in Tokyo who has earned several Coursera business certificates, said via email.
3. Other types of paid classes and smaller credentials: Beyond edX and Coursera MOOCs, there are online options for low-cost credentials in business. Udemy, an online library of more than 55,000 online courses, allows users to pay between $10 and $200 for most course certificates.
HBX at the Harvard Business School is another example, offering standalone courses in areas such as finance leadership and entrepreneurship – typically around $1,000 or higher. There’s also a three-course online program called CORe – standing for “Credential of Readiness” – costing about $2,000 for the noncredit version and covering analytics, economics and accounting.
Patrick Mullane, executive director of HBX, says he sees HBX certificate programs as an opportunity to improve skills “but in a very defined area where you feel you might have a gap.”
4. Graduate certificate programs: Some universities offer graduate-level business certificates online, sometimes referred to as “mini MBAs,” for students to either gain general foundational knowledge in business or master specific subject areas. These provide greater insight than free online courses, experts say, but require less time and money than an MBA.
Online certificates may be either noncredit or for credit. A for-credit program may be structured so that the certificate is actually a portion of an MBA curriculum, allowing students to transfer credits if they decide to eventually pursue the MBA, says Vickie Cook, executive director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois—Springfield.
“It allows students to really focus where at that particular time, to answer a direct need, and then if they have additional needs later on, they can move in that direction,” Cook says.
5. Specialized online master’s degrees: An online master’s degree specializing in a particular business field – such as the one Spinelli pursued in finance – is another online option.
“They’re intended to give depth in the discipline for somebody who’s already in the area for the most part,” says Ramesh Venkataraman, chair of Kelley’s online MBA and M.S. programs.